For the first time in nearly two years, my kitchen contains chaotic piles of sleeping bags, campfire cookware, life jackets, and a snack selection that could only be matched by a 10-year-old on a convenience store shopping spree.
My kid and I are getting ready for a road trip with five consecutive days of swimming and s’mores and checking out cool locations, and what was once routine is now exhilarating. I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never been more excited to travel within Ontario.
Just about everyone, it seems, has a set of COVID realizations, things we’ve learned about ourselves after being more or less housebound for nearly 500 days and having entirely too much time to think. One of my most important ones is that having something to look forward to is absolutely critical to my mental health. Getting up, getting through work and virtual school, going to sleep, and doing it over and over again like Groundhog Day was exhausting and draining, especially when there was no way of knowing when it would be possible to plan for the future again. On the day “someday” turned back into “that day,” and “if” became “when,” my mental state changed overnight.
This first overnight trip will span six days, but we’ve been careful not to jump back in with both feet in case it gets overwhelming. Instead, we worked our way back into it with some day trips close to home, which helped get us back into the swing of increasingly long stretches in the car and away from screens.
Most recently, one such adventure saw us with a 2021 Nissan Rogue in our driveway, two inflatable stand-up paddleboards in the back, and nowhere in particular to go. This brings to mind another COVID realization: my life revolves around cars, but they lose a lot of their purpose when we don’t have a destination to point them toward.
Fortunately, over the past few weeks, it no longer feels irresponsible to consider visiting somewhere new. Buoyed by reports of beautiful scenery and excellent paddling, we headed for Highway 400 and set off northbound to visit Arrowhead Provincial Park, based roughly two hours north of the Greater Toronto Area near Huntsville.
If you’ve heard of this park before and can’t place why, it’s probably because of its winter activities: the park’s 1.3-kilometre skating trail through thick Muskoka forest has long been a popular draw. But Arrowhead is just as stunning in the summer with its calm waterways and rolling, tree-crested hills. Ontario Parks are offering free day-use access on weekdays all summer in 2021, which helped to make this park an easy choice.
We checked in with the Rogue mid-afternoon and then headed to the beach access to set up the paddleboards. As we descended down the path and the lake came into view, my daughter gasped: this park looks just like her Muskoka-based summer camp, she declared, which to her deep disappointment has been cancelled for two summers in a row. It was as though her brain had suddenly unlocked some distant memory.
She immediately jumped into the water, and the look of sheer, unbridled joy that followed will live in my memory forever. Opportunities to simply be a kid have been hard to come by among months of online schooling, virtual birthday parties, and the unnatural stresses of watching grown-ups deal with a global pandemic. In that moment, worries washed away and time became meaningless.
Eventually, we strapped onto our boards and pointed ourselves toward the Little East River, which offers paddlers an easy 20-minute trip to Stubbs Falls. It’s a somewhat precarious walk downhill to view the falls from the bottom when approaching from this side, but we parked our boards and observed from the pedestrian bridge that spans the river. The trip back got a little exciting when we needed to return to the beach: the opposing current heading back into Arrowhead Lake was too strong for my daughter to paddle through. Fortunately, we’re experienced paddlers and know when we’re in over our heads, but lessons are a good idea to those new to the sport. I was glad to have flip-flops with me to climb over the rocks as I walked against the current to give her a hand. But for a carefree afternoon of adventure, this was all well worth the effort.
This leads me to one more COVID realization: living life at a frenetic pace is overrated. As I plan this summer’s road trips, my itineraries are far less focused on quantity of experiences than they are on quality. Many of Canada’s greatest joys are the simplest ones, so I’ve deliberately made more time for swimming, hiking, roasting marshmallows, listening to loon calls, and gazing up at the stars.
We’re getting back on the road and back to everything that matters most. We finally have something to look forward to, and it’s made all the difference in the world.